Philippines says Chinese vessels have left disputed shoal

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (C), accompanied by Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade (R) and Defense Secretary Delfin N Lorenzana (L), claps at the end of Japan's coast guard drills in Yokohama, Japan October 27, 2016. REUTERS/Kazuhiro Nogi/Pool

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (C), accompanied by Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade (R) and Defense Secretary Delfin N Lorenzana (L), claps at the end of Japan’s coast guard drills in Yokohama, Japan October 27, 2016. REUTERS/Kazuhiro Nogi/Pool

By Manuel Mogato | MANILA Fri Oct 28, 2016 | 3:31pm EDT

Chinese ships are no longer at the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea and Philippine boats can resume fishing, the Philippine defence minister said on Friday, calling the Chinese departure a “welcome development”.

Philippine fishermen can access the shoal unimpeded for the first time in four years, Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said, capping off a startling turnaround in ties since his country rattled China by challenging its maritime claims at an international tribunal.

The departure of the Chinese coast guard ships comes after President Rodrigo Duterte’s high-profile visit to Beijing and his repeated requests for China to end its blockade of the shoal, a tranquil lagoon rich in fish stocks.

“Since three days ago there are no longer Chinese ships, coast guard or navy, in the Scarborough area,” Lorenzana told reporters.

“If the Chinese ships have left, then it means our fishermen can resume fishing in the area.”

Though the Scarborough Shoal is comprised of only a few rocks poking above the sea some 124 nautical miles off the Philippine mainland, it is symbolic of Manila’s efforts to assert its maritime sovereignty claims.

Lorenzana did not explain the circumstances of the Chinese pullout from the shoal, the centrepiece of a case Manila filed in 2013 at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague that was decided in Manila’s favour on July 12.

And there was some confusion about the situation at sea, with a Philippine military spokesman earlier saying Chinese vessels were “still there”. Some fishermen familiar with the area said the same.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang made no mention of a coast guard withdrawal when asked about the return of Philippine fishermen to the shoal.

The two countries “were able to work together on issues regarding the South China Sea and appropriately resolve disputes,” Lu told a regular briefing.

The United States backed Manila’s arbitration case as part of its effort to stand up to what it sees as China’s “excessive” maritime claims, only to come under repeated verbal attack from Duterte recently. Washington said it was still assessing Lorenzana’s comments on the Chinese moves.

“We hope it’s certainly not a temporary measure,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner told a regular news briefing.

“We’d like it to be a sign that China and the Philippines are moving towards an agreement on fishing access at Scarborough reef that would be in accordance with the July 12 arbitral decision.”

Greg Poling, a South China Sea expert at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, said a Chinese pullout from Scarborough Shoal would be “a big deal, if it’s true and if it’s sustained.”

“But there is a lot that is still unclear,” he said.

“Is this a sign of a new status quo, whereby China will effectively comply with the arbitral award by allowing Filipino fishermen access to Scarborough?

“Or is it just an olive branch while the two sides haggle over language for a long-term deal, which might prove impossible to reach if Beijing insists on language suggesting it is ‘permitting’ or ‘allowing’ the Philippines access?'”

The Hague court declared that despite Scarborough Shoal being located within the Philippines’ 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, no one country had sovereign rights to it, so all claimants may fish there.


China has refused to recognise the case or the award, which also invalidated the nine-dash line on Chinese maps denoting its claims to most of the South China Sea.

China seized Scarborough Shoal – claimed by Beijing as Huangyan Island and by Manila as Panatag – in 2012.

The previous Philippines administration’s pursuit of the case infuriated China, but Beijing appears to have changed its stance since Duterte took office and started praising Beijing, often in the same sentences as his perplexing verbal attacks on longtime ally the United States.

Reuters exclusively reported on the eve of Duterte’s visit to China that Beijing would consider granting Philippine fishermen conditional access to the shoal.

An end to the standoff over the shoal is still a potentially combustible issue for both countries.

Some Philippine commentators say Manila may object to any reference to its fishermen being “permitted” to return, while Beijing might be wary of appearing to be softening its position on what it calls “indisputable” sovereignty.

Duterte’s spokesman, Ernesto Abella, offered no comment on whether the two sides had reached agreement.

“All I can say, at this stage, it has been observed there are no longer Chinese coast guard in the area,” he said.

China’s Lu hailed Duterte’s recent visit as a success and said both countries were able to discuss the South China Sea impasse.

“It is completely possible that the bilateral relationship can recover,” Lu said.

“I can tell you that the two sides are in communication.”

(Additional reporting by Sue-Lin Wong in Beijing and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Paul Simao and Lisa Shumaker)

Source: Reuters “Philippines says Chinese vessels have left disputed shoal”

Note: This is Reuters report I post here for readers’ information. It does not mean that I agree or disagree with the report’ views.


8 Comments on “Philippines says Chinese vessels have left disputed shoal”

  1. Good Times Do Not Last Forever says:

    Mr Rodrigo Duterte has 6 years only. After that, what? Will Washington rig Philippines next elections and have their own man in as the President? Men in the likes of far rightist pro America Shinzo Abe, Lee Myung-Bak or Benigno Aquino?

    Mr Duterte is an experienced politician and possess intellect to enable him to see clearly what are the socio-politico and economic issues in the Philippines are, and what are in the Philippines national interest vis-a-vis the U.S. or any other external country. These are his forte and will place him in good stead in running his country well in the 6 years.

    Of course, being a seasoned politician he understands the need for economic development and business investment – local or foreign – and the benefits of luring foreign investments into the Philippines. And how he can benefit his businessmen and himself at the same time. A 10% of the profits of the 200 plus businessmen who accompanied him to Beijing, would be very lucrative indeed. Just 10% of 50% profits for eg from the USD 13 billion business struck, would be about USD 650 million.

    I do not begrudge him his “earnings” if he indeed manages Philippines well and deserves fair compensation; Especially if distribution of wealth is fairly and equally made. That would be the hallmark of a good leader.

    Nevertheless, at the end of it all, Beijing still needs to be careful and ensure all business deals are properly and legally secured in the event of change in leadership (Mr Duterte could be “droned”!) in the future. Perhaps it should negotiate for a military base in the Philippines.


  2. Simon says:

    China should never give the impression of conceding to the illegal PCA. Any Fillipino fishermen allowed in must respect Chinese soverienty, seek permission from Chinese authority when and when not to fish, also not allowed to send any coast guard ships.
    Chins is also free to build on and militarise the shoal.


  3. Steve says:

    I highly doubt it if the PCA arbitral tribunal ruling has anything to do with the PH fishermen being allowed to fish. I believe a MoU has been written up and agreed upon by both sides. Also, President Duterte need to further increase his popular support in order to negotiate on the territorial SCS with China. Duterte’s current support is 70+ % and with Filipino fishermen being release from their ‘curfew’ to fish at the Scarborough Shoal, Duterte’s rating should pass 80%+, which would be very high for any President. This MoU is just a tentative solution.

    China will definitely use Huangyan island as a powerful bartering tool for strategic exchanges such as Islands and Atolls. China’s main concern are it’s trade lifelines and national security against any maritime enemy from the SCS.


  4. johnleecan says:

    Duterte is using psychological methods to deceive other countries into thinking what they want to hear and using it as a bargaining chip since they got nothing to offer. The Philippines is trying to muddy the waters so as to keep others guessing. Look at all the conflicting statements made since Duterte became president. Let’s see how long they can play this out before it backfires.


    • Simon says:

      Yes I don’t trust him entirely. He also said he would back Japan in SCS dispute unless he thinks he can hood wink the international community that when push come to shove he can rely on the fact that Japan has no territorial claims in the SCS and not be force to side with Japan.
      One thing for sure he does not like America but action is louder than word and so far he show no action to match his words. China does not need to make concession on allowing Filipino fishermen into Scarborough Shoal. Just voicing support for Duterte in it crackdown on drugs is enough to draw it closer to China’s side. Instead China gave far more such as opening up tourism, lift restriction on Philipine imports, giving out multi billions in loans and investments. A few fishermen’s livilihood count for nothing compare to that. China should never budge and would be an unwise move making concession in Scarborough Shoal. Already the Yanks is interpreting this as China conceding to the illegal PCA. Whether that is true or not it is face saving for the Americans and potentialy costly to China weakening its wider claims to the SCS.


    • Steve says:

      Maybe, but doubt it. Both the foreign departments are working hard to have an amicable solution or at least some tangible results. It is an opening that should not close. President Duterte is correct pivoting to China on the basis of bilateral negotiations away from the US diplomacy. Countries like Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam are pursuing the same course of actions for bilateral negotiations. The only country in ASEAN creating problems is Singapore with a preference of bilateral negotiations under the umbrella of ASEAN rather that individual and independent nations. Singapore is wrong, Duterte is correct in his pursuit of bilateral negotiations with China.There is no other way around. It would be stupid for Duterte to pivot away from China, especially when the Philippines will soon take the chair in ASEAN


      • Simon says:

        The problem is leaving other countries having their own interpretation which undermines China’s soverignty through ambiguity. There is no amicable solution if Phillipines are allowed their own interpretation were they say to their people that they have not surrendered sovereignty even though they don’t actually adminster it and China willing to allow that to happen. The only message China must send is sole Chinese sovereignty and you only allow to fish by permit granted which can be change or revoke at any time. The illegal PCA challenge to China’s claims is exactly advocating that China allow Fillipino fishermen right to fish and end Chinese sole claim to Scarborogh Shoal which I fear is what is happening. Seems the real victors are Duterte, Phillipine and the illegal PCA. I hate to say this but until Duterte really does anything to end its dependent on America the real losers here are China who is giving away too many and now look weak.


        • Steve says:

          The only claimant countries (correct me if wrong) are Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Indonesia. China advocated bilateral negotiations with individual countries, not under the umbrella of ASEAN or multilateral agreements (this is what US wants). If this is not the golden opportunity knocking on China’s door, I cannot imagine anything else better. In Chinese we call this ‘Hongpow’. China is obviously not stupid considering its claims over 80% of the SCS. China has the flexibility to give rather than to take more.

          China already has 7 engineered islands, the world’s banker, best economy and controls Huangyan island. This bilateral negotiation between China and Philippines when successful, will become the stepping for Vietnam to pivot to Uncle Han. Vietnam don’t have a choice, but to negotiated bilaterally. Malaysia and Brunei are small claims compared to PH and Vietnam. China need to set it right with PH and President Duterte will not use the PCA ruling as the gateway to negotiations. Duterte has no choice, but to please his Filipinos by saying he will uphold the PCA ruling, but its crap because its not a negotiable instrument with China.